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Janitor Zen

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After graduating high school outside of Chicago, most peers of mine got jobs as lifeguards at the beach, day camp leaders or book worms at Borders. For me, I went straight back to the place I was so excited to leave... to be a janitor for the summer.

My high school was not just any public school, it was New Trier, a well tax-funded North Shore suburban institution, standing four stories high (five if you include the radio station) with a basement, and known for high academic success and a TIME Magazine cover story about rich kids who smoke and deal weed . We all saw John Hughes' classic, The Breakfast Club, and even though it was filmed at a nearby campus, it was based on the sobriquet Trevians gave their detentions (I got a Breakfast Club once in junior high and the teacher actually called it that when I got it in front of the whole class)

In the 80's my oldest sister went there and spent every school day with Liz Phair in her morning advisory class. She said Liz was so happy and go-lucky, it was sickening. Charleton Heston went here in the forties, writer Scott Turow in the sixties. Other Hollywood transplants include producer Edward Zwick and actors Rock Hudson, Ann-Margret, James Eckhouse and Lili Taylor. Oh yeah, and one dude went to Washington D.C. -- his name is Donald Rumsfeld.

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A lot of kids hated going there and some still whine about it. It was high school, so I guess everyone has that teenage angst, but I can't complain. New Trier has a four-story music building, a student computer lab on every floor, a two-story visual arts building with a small autoshop and engineering classes, dance studios, a gym class where you go kayaking and rock wall climbing and classic senior pranks. The best prank was during my senior year where a student got a hold of one of the janitor's master keys to the school. He hooked up with another student who worked as a key copier and mass produced the key, sending it to every fourth student in the school directory with a forged letter from the principal.

No doubt, one of my first duties as a paid summer janitor was working with those students who were forced to work as a janitor as punishment. To them, I probably got the worse punishment: my job every single morning was to clean every single boys bathroom in the school, a duty that took my partner and I from 7 a.m. to noon. I soon learned that boys were not as disgusting as girls, at least during summer school. The female janitors would show us how bad it was, mainly bloody tampons purposefully disposed of in sinks and stuck to walls. In the afternoons, we had a set of offices and classrooms to tidy up until it was time to go home at 3:30 in the afternoon.

I enjoyed the daily routine, it was peaceful and humbling.

The most memorable part of working there that summer were the cast of characters. There was the Brown graduate who did shipping and receiving and called everyone "shit stain", the wise Irish electrician who would tell short histories and facts over many conversational topics, the long-haired HVAC guy who lived his life like a rockstar (or so he said), the sarcastic and anally organized carpenter who had a fascination with M&M candy collectibles, the badass and edgey looking lawn care guy who took showers twice a day on schedule and the boss of office who acted like a CEO of a large anonymous company, never to be seen and always on a golf outing. The list could go on and on. and that was just first shift. New Trier's "Physical Plant Operations" is a 24/7 three-shift undertaking.

Our HQ was in the basement. Not the nice classroom part, but the part that felt like a basement: dirty, dark and cavernous. It was the mystical underground of the high school that students talked about, but never saw. It ended up not being that crazy, but there were small tunnels that were fun to explore and a sort of sub-basement for storage (it was more like a lowered floor to give more height).

Lunches with the guys in the basement were ball busting, full of "fuck you's," laughter and at least a daily comment about me being a vegetarian ("fuck you veggie boy"), all in well-intentioned tough guy humor of course.

I'll always remember that summer as a janitor, I love weird jobs. The next summer I came back from college and worked for them again, but this time as an assistant to the carpenter -- I ate a lot of M&Ms those few months.

Photo by Daquella manera via Flickr